I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
It was the summer of 2011, and I was being paid by the hour to copyedit an e-book about a fantastical city ruled by a football stadium. The book was boring, if you can believe it — the work slogged on and on, and the internet beckoned. Lucky for me, a story about a freeway closure in Los Angeles was about to liven things up.
First, though, an important linguistic distinction: You’ll notice I wrote freeway and not highway. This is key in understanding the way people of the West Coast think about themselves and their environment (I’m from Washington State). On the East Coast, highways are oppressive and narrow. Driving anywhere in New York State, I am fully aware that I have no right to these roads or the space beyond. Unlike a highway, the freeways of my youth seem to stretch on and on, unhindered by tolls and people who honk too much. Sometimes freeways become clogged with traffic, sure, but always with the promise of an ocean or forest or horizon just beyond that final car.
Divisions do exist within the coast. For instance, Washingtonians like me hate Californians. We’re suspicious of how nice sunshine makes them, and prefer people like us, wrinkled and damp from a constant rain. Still, our preoccupation with Californians says more about us than them — they have something we both disdain and desire. I explain all this to make clear the very specific perspective I brought to the best internet story of that summer: Carmageddon.
This was the name given to the weekend of July 16 and 17, 2011, when a ten-mile stretch of the 405 freeway in L.A. was closed for construction. The 405 is a major north-south interstate in Southern California, heavily traveled by freight haulers and commuters alike. It’s both the busiest and most congested freeway in the country. To spread awareness of the closure and encourage people to avoid that route, the LAPD asked for help from the most popular people in the City of Angels: celebrities.
About 30 celebrities complied with the LAPD’s request, according to the L.A. Times. This went awry in predictable ways: Kim Kardashian’s initial tweet included the wrong dates. William Shatner’s message managed to fit in both the closure information and some self-promotion. Several celebrities made lackluster jokes that clouded the actual information. But for someone bored and with only the internet and an imagination for company, the best tweets were the vaguest. Take Paris Hilton’s, for example:
Imagine reading this tweet without any context. What is Carmageddon? What makes the traffic so brutal you’re afraid to leave the house — murderers darting between cars? A sinkhole? A gang of ghosts? Who knows! But that’s what Hilton told her followers.
This slanted mystery is what I love most about Carmageddon — it was a bureaucratic plan both silly-seeming and practical, concrete with details and fantastic in its vagueness. What haunts a freeway, what waits out there to harm me, should I dare leave the house in my vehicle? What does a celebrity know about what lies ahead that I don’t?
In Washington, the rain beats down hard, keeping heads bent toward the practical path ahead. No one would dare ask Washingtonians to make transportation plans at the recommendation of the same people they know only from made-up stories on television. But in the summer of 2011, Los Angeles’s police and its celebrities invited us to wonder why, out there in California, they might be inclined to listen to the most famous among us. No matter where you were that summer, Carmageddon let you spend a little more time in the L.A. of your mind: some sunny place not without danger, but where all bad — and completely undefined — things can be evaded, just by staying home and avoiding the freeway.